Loire Valley Wines & Yannick BENJAMIN
We sat down with Yannick Benjamin, the owner and operator of NYC’s Contento and XX wines for a deep dive into what makes the Loire a standout region.
Yannick Benjamin knows his way around the Loire Valley: From visiting as a child to championing the wines at his Harlem restaurant, Contento, and wine shop, Beaupierre Wine & Spirits, the Loire Valley is a sweet spot for this sommelier. This week, we sat down with Yannick to get his take on France’s longest river valley, the ideal Peruvian dish to serve with Chenin Blanc, and why we should all resist the temptation to oversimplify diverse wine regions.
Read on to discover Yannick’s one-of-a-kind insights.
Loire Valley (LV): How did you first discover the Loire Valley and its wines?
Yannick Benjamin (YB): The first time I discovered the Loire Valley was at the very young age of 13 years-old when I traveled there and had the honor and privilege to visit all those beautiful châteaux in the Loire Valley. It was quite amazing. And, the nickname that they go by, “The Garden of France,” is accurate so it left a big impression on me.
As far as working with wines from the Loire Valley and fully understanding them and being captivated by them, that happened in my early 20s. It wasn't until I started working at a restaurant called Atelier within the Ritz-Carlton Central Park South that I started discovering all these wonderful Cabernet Francs. And for me, Cabernet Franc was really a grape that was primarily used as a backbone for Bordeaux Blends and, so I was blown away by the diversity of styles and, and the beauty of it as a mono-varietal wine like we see coming from the Loire Valley. And then I soon discovered Chenin Blanc. I just was so in love with it, with the texture and the aromas and how unique it was.
LV: What do you think helps Loire Valley wines stand out on the shelf or on menus?
YB: I think the respect for working and living according to what nature gives you is paramount in Loire Valley wines and what makes the Loire Valley very unique compared to many other places. Allowing nature to take its course is of the utmost importance for producers there, and obviously there's a lot of hard work that goes into the viticultural aspect of it. But there's still this kind of attitude of, ‘We're not going to dictate how the soil should be tilled or what we should put in the vineyards as far as fertilizers or chemicals, but we're going to listen to what the vine and the landscape.’ I think that's really important, and leads to the creation of wines of integrity and honesty. I think it's an ethos about respecting the land and respecting tradition.
But it's also respecting that there will be future generations that come onto that land and will have to cultivate it. So vintners in the Loire are preparing that sort of legacy that's being passed on to another generation.
And I think that there's such great consistency with the Loire Valley yet also curiosity and a desire to always do better. That's the experience that I've had with a lot of the producers from out there from Sancerre to Muscadet.
LV: What do you think incorrectly assume, and how do you reframe their assumptions?
YB: My personal experience is that people think of the Loire Valley as a small place. But from the central vineyards to the coast is a really big drive. There’s a massive difference in climates and grape varieties and experiences within the Loire.
So I try to help people really understand, especially in the trade, that one appellation in the Loire doesn't have anything to do with the others. For example, if you're having a Cabernet Franc from Chinon, it’s not going to be the same exact style as a Cabernet Franc from Samur or Bourgueil. I think that people don't fully understand the incredible diversity and the uniqueness of these grapes. There's a lot of varieties that you don't really find anywhere else in the world. So while in the grand scheme of things, the Loire Valley might be a small place, it's actually a fairly vast region where each appellation is very unique and has its own character and personality.
LV: What do you think the Loire does differently than its peers in France and the world?
YB: I think the Loire has always been at the forefront of great leadership when it comes to natural winemaking, minimal intervention winemaking, and Biodynamics. They’ve really led the way, I think and made these topics of conversation for other regions. I think it's hard not to associate the Loire Valley with pioneering minimal intervention, sustainable farming, and biodynamics. I think they've done such a tremendous job leading the way, leading these discussions, and creating a template for others to follow as well.
LV: Do you have a favorite menu pairing for Loire Valley wines?
YB: I think, working at a Peruvian restaurant where there's such a mosaic of different flavors and different textures I just love using Chenin Blanc. I love that it has all these, sweet and sour components to it. It's got real generosity in the glass, yet also this nervous energy that is vibrant and keeps your palate alive.
We have a dish at Contento that is a very simple dish, and it's a dish that I always like to give to our guests when they come in. It's Crispy Yucca with Aji Amarillo. So it's got a bit of spice to it, and a kick in the best possible way. I think that when you get a nice Chenin Blanc that is dry with notes of baked apple and quince and these freshly cut floral notes it’s amazing. The acid does such a tremendous job of cutting through the yucca, which is deep fried, and then the sweetness of the wine really balances out with the spiciness of the actual dish itself.